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Opinion Column
For the week of February 14 through 20, 2001

JoElephant's guide to our animal kin

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for animals and animal stories. Not only do I weep at old Lassie movies, but tales of neglected mustangs, Koko the gorilla who speaks to humans through sign language, lost and found terriers, and monogamous elephants are meant for me. Some of the children at the school where I work call me JoElephant (better than being known as the Elephant Lady) because my fondness for that huge mammal is so evident.

So when 60 Minutes broadcast a segment about a choir on San Juan Island who performed for the migrating whales cavorting nearby, my interest was piqued. At first the premise seemed a bit sappy and thus suited to my sentimental streak where animals are concerned. The music of the orcas has been documented before; but this experiment posited the idea that the whales not only could respond to the sounds being sent out to them but that their own music had some connection with human sounds. As the segment progressed, and from the show's transcripts, it is obvious that there is a grain of truth to these concepts.

This attempt to communicate with the largest creatures on the planet, whales, using a language they understand, was accomplished through the choir's voices being directed over a special speaker designed to project sound through the water. Roger Payne, a pioneering expert on the sounds of whales, was assigned the project of analyzing the results. He used high-tech machines which recorded sound waves and frequencies, even those created underwater. The notations resembled EKG graphs.

Payne believes that whales, especially humpbacks, create what he terms "true art," eliciting emotional responses and sometimes tears in listeners. Furthermore, he has found that whales compose and vocalize, creating patterns of sound like the verses of human beings. "They compose all the time," he said. "They constantly dicker with their sounds." Humans have "tight" harmonics, whales "spread-out," as evidenced by comparing the recorded frequencies of both subjects. He attributes this similarity of song making between humans and whales to the similarity of vertebrae brains in both species.

On this concert afternoon the participants hoped the whales would respond. As the choir did a run-through before the performance, a group of orcas actually showed up. Later in the day the equipment tracking the whales confirmed their presence. When the choir began, the orcas swam into view. They stayed as the concert continued, coming close to shore and frolicking in the water. The underwater hydrophone then picked up whale vocalizations. Later computer analysis showed that the whale voices even joined in with the human ones on several songs.

While the television footage was selective and the experiment possibly unscientific, it is an amazing thought that these water mammals could react as they did. It is true also that Mr. Payne says he's not sure the evidence is completely in about what seems like an amazing connection between whales and humans. Nonetheless, he asserts, he is determined to keep analyzing the music of the whales in his search for proof. And, anecdotal or not, I find the prospect intriguing. I do believe there is more knowledge out there than we are yet able to understand.

I have been told about a school of dolphins that surrounded a boat load of people scattering the ashes of a young man whose parents honored his love of the ocean. I know of a young man sent to monitor the number of dolphin kills on an Asian fishing vessel by the international body that oversees the violation of fishing regulations. He wrote to his fiancée that the sounds of the dolphins caught in the nets were like the death throes of human beings. He could not remain aloof.

We might even be more intertwined with the plant kingdom than we thought. The Dec. 14 issue of the Boise Statesman carried a report about the discovery of the entire genetic makeup of a common weed, a breakthrough in medical science. The most striking conclusion from the study is that researchers found about 100 of the plant's genes that are closely related to human disease genes involved in deafness, blindness, and cancer. Thus these plants will be used to investigate gene-based therapies for these maladies. According to Rod Wing, who is in the process of sequencing the rice genome at Clemson University, "It provides further evidence that we (plants and humans) do have a common origin."

Carl Sagan once said that humans have an " inclination to see themselves as the center of the universe was directly linked to the racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism that plague the world. Each of these is an attempt to make us special without having to do anything to earn it."

The more we seem to learn about our brother species, the more there is an increased sense of connection. Call me a tree-hugger or a stupid lover of animals because they act or look like human beings. I do believe that we are linked with other living things in ways that we are only beginning to explore.

I leave further action to vegans, PETA members, and other activists who believe the connections between human and other species are extremely close.

So let the whales sing. I'd love to sing back to them and to the concept that we as humans are not the sole proprietors of being special.

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